Non Literal Creation Interpretation

Taking genesis as being figurative of long epochs…

I can see how taking modern cosmology we can agree the universe was created from nothing and we can say that God was the first cause, that by his design the cosmos formed the way we currently describe with the hot big bang.

I can see how taking life science we can say that one species can eventually turn into another given enough time.

I can accept the idea that as a result animals roamed the earth for a long time before man arrived.

Where I struggle is saying that, as currently described, evolution / natural selection happened prior to the fall of man because I view death as a consequence of sin, and I view the world as not having death, mankind or otherwise, prior to the fall of man.

I don’t understand how death of animals would have happened when the world was perfect. Because of that I cannot reconcile the claim that the fossil record shows long periods of life prior to first man’s existence and the account of Genesis.

Myself I am from a fundamentalist background and I tend to doubt the logic of man/science first and instead take a literal view of divine revelation.

Can anyone help me understand the point of view of those taking a non literal view. Do they say death of animals preexists the fall and how do we reconcile that with death coming into the world through Adam.

Did God use evolution? He may have. Genesis is not a science text, so it does not tell us how so much as why. But there are hints. Only three times in the creation account is “bara” used: for the creation of matter (I:I), life (I:2I) and humanity (I:27). The other times, God said, “let the waters bring forth…” or “let the earth bring forth…” that is, for most of His acts of “creation”, He made rather than created.

For example, He used the pre-existing material of “the dust of the earth to make man. Was that an ape body? Perhaps. Why not? Our 'image of God” distinctiveness, our personality, is grounded in the soul, not in the body. We are “rational animals”. God is not an animal.

Catholics have seldom had the difficulties and embarrassments many Protestants have had about creation vs. evolution. Ever since Augustine they have interpreted Genesis’ “days” non literally. (The Hebrew word there, yom, is often used non-quantitatively in Scripture.) Purposes not clocks, measure God’s time.

If we extend your understanding one way: Life did not die before the fall.
What of living plants? Did animals live without food? Did not plant die?
If man sinned, why do the animals die now? They did not sin.

Extend it the other way. Without our glorified bodies, perhaps we were meant to die, but only physically. Jesus says “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28). Some have proposed that the death that entered the world in the garden is the death of the soul (condemnation to eternal damnation) rather than physical death.

It is written that death is a gift God gave to man so that we may be with him in our next life. Perhaps physical death was always the gateway to perfect union with God.

Re-read Genesis with this understanding of death and see if it still makes sense to you.

Animals, having a material nature, would naturally be subject to death “technically” in the same way as plants and insects die. However, there is no reason to assume that natural death was painful. On the other hand, we could consider that highly sentient animals could inflict pain on other animals as a survival action.

Adam and Eve had an unique human nature which is like both animals (material) *and *like God (spiritual)-- we are body and soul. While Adam’s anatomy would be subject to natural material death, he did not have to die as long as he lived in free submission to his Creator. Unfortunately, Adam shattered humanity’s relationship with God and thus death for humanity became a result of Adam’s Original Sin. In addition, Adam and Eve lost their original holiness, which many consider as a kind of spiritual death.

Personally, I depend on Catholic doctrines to discern the literal from the non-literal view of the first three chapters of Genesis.

Human death came as a result of the Fall, not necessarily the death of other living things. The key is to remember that the sin of Adam and Eve brought evil into the physical world. Moral evil is the main thing we are talking about there, but “physical evil” is also included.

Death, disease, aging, natural disasters, thorns and thistles, these are physical evils when they negatively affect human beings. Logically, we must have been preserved from their effects before the Fall. But the deaths of plants and of non-human animals are not evil unless they negatively affect human beings, for whose sake they were created. Indeed, the death of a non-human animal or plant can be a good thing when it in some way helps people. Death in this case has nothing evil about it; it is just a flux of matter and energy. There is no reason, therefore, to hold that physical death did not affect these things prior to the Fall, indeed it is nearly impossible to imagine how the world could have functioned without it.

Regarding the seven (really six, since the seventh was a day of rest) days of creation, I would hesitate to call them phases of natural history.

Certainly it is interesting when scientists find out something that fits curiously well with the account in Genesis, such as the existence of light before the first stars, which to earlier generations seemed absurd. It is possible that God providentially guided Hebrew mythology to reflect actual natural history on some points. Fundamentally though, we should not expect God to reveal scientific matters to ancient peoples. Genesis should instead be interpreted as an inspired and authentically theological mythology, in the very positive sense of that word. Nothing in the account is false. Indeed it is all the word of God. But it expresses truths about the universe through the genre of mythology.

Most importantly, the account emphasizes how everything in the universe has its origin in God, and by implication that God transcends the universe and has ultimate power over it. Anthropologists have noted many similarities in details to the mythologies and cosmologies of neighboring peoples, especially those of Mesopotamia where the Bible says Abraham and Sarah were from, but these details are reworked into an entirely different ultimate view of the universe.

I would view the actual six days of creation as atemporal aspects of God’s creation of the universe rather than successive epochs of the distant past. Though science can now explain the creation of light before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, ancient Semitic people presumably would not have known about this and so the separation of them suggests that even the original Israelites did not take the story in a “fundamentalist” way. The difficulty of reconciling this first creation story with the second is another piece of evidence for this. Surely whoever first put them next to each other was intelligent enough to notice that they do not match up if interpreted with block-headed “literalism.” The evenings and mornings which pass before the creation of the sun could also be interpreted as supporting a more poetic meaning.

Anyway, what is still irreconcilable with the modern scientific account of the past is the creation of birds before that of land animals. Therefore instead of epochs of history I would view the six days as systematic classification of the universe and a statement that God created all of it.

We begin with nothing but waters (representing primeval chaos- the lack of any kind of order or distinctions) and the Spirit of God.

Then God acts:

First, he makes the fundamental distinction between light and dark, which can be taken literally, or allegorically as representing truth and falsehood, good and evil, being and non-being, etc. It is the light he actually creates, while the darkness is a mere absence of light.

Second comes the distinction between the waters below the sky and the “waters” above the sky. This is more awkward according to modern scientific cosmology, but it was an important distinction to make for ancient Semites.

Third comes the distinction between sea and land. Since the sea represented untamed, unformed chaos to the Semitic mind, this is imagined as creating the land and separating it from a pre-existing sea. Interestingly, plant life is seen as a part of the land.

Next comes the creation of the creatures associated with these three great dichotomies of Creation.

First, the sun, moon, and stars, creatures of light corresponding to the first day in which light was created and separated from the darkness and “ruling” the day and night.

Second, the fish and birds are made, corresponding to the sea and sky which were distinguished from each other on the second day.

Third, corresponding to the land and its separation from the sea on the third day, the inhabitants of the earth are created- land animals and man. Man is then given a sort of mastery over the whole.

Finally God rests, a reflection of the Jewish Sabbath and for us Christians a very mysterious and profound idea, the kind of soil from which mysticism springs (though the same could be said for the clarity of the previous six days- mysticism need not be mysterious).

Anyway, that’s my view on the subject. It is certainly a difficult one, and one on which a wide variety of positions are tolerated in the Church.

The difficulty arises from the notion of what the term “perfection” means in the physical world. And also that death is “evil”. Death is a state, not a moral characteristic.

You cannot have a working ecosystem without death. The idea of a physical realm with living things without death is nonsense. Without carnivores, herbivores overpopulate to the point of starvation, so without killing you would still have death. Plants would grow unchecked until other plants were buried, so even without a thing being eaten, you still have death.

A perfect world is one in which the whole works perfectly, which has nothing to do with whether and individual does or does not suffer physical death.

Human beings are creatures of body and soul. If we lose our bodies we lose an extremely important part of ourselves, and this is a great physical evil. Physical evil came into the world as a result of sin, ergo physical human death came into the world as a result of sin. The attitude that human suffering and death do not matter if they do not harm the soul is frankly an anti-Christian and anti-human approach (though an easy mistake to fall into; I’m not saying you are personally anti-Christian or anti-human).

Moral evil and physical evil are distinct, but both very real, kinds of evils.

In understanding this, we have to understand whose death Genesis is talking about–it’s that of the human race, not of the whole of creation, for we know that all things change in the “circle of life”. St. Paul tells us something about this in Romans 8:

[19] For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;
[20] for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope;
[21] because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
[22] We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now;
[23] and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

So while all else went through the natural cycles of birth, growth and death, mankind was meant to be the caretakers and thus be set apart from this natural cycle, even though our physical form was created from nature.

It was the second death which entered, eternal damnation. That is the death that entered. No reason to believe that it meant physical death.

Do you have a source for this idea?


God inspired the Bible and God made the world. Both are from God, so the correct interpretation of one agrees with the correct interpretation of the other. You are right that the evidence of the world that God made shows the Big Bang, long ages and animal death before man.

You don’t have to take a “non literal” view if you don’t want to; you just need to take a slightly revised literal view.

Look through Genesis. God does not describe the pre-fall world as “perfect”. He describes it as “good” or “very good”. At one point he even says, “not good” (Genesis 2:18). I know a lot of fundamentalists describe the pre-fall world as “perfect”, but I think they are wrong. The pre-fall world contained the serpent. Would you say that the serpent was “perfect”? It was in Eden before Eve thought about eating the fruit.

What does the Bible say about the effects of the fall? “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Romans 5:12 (emphasis added). The effect of the fall was to “spread” death to all men. Death cannot have “spread” if it was not already present somewhere else than in men. Before the fall, animals died but men didn’t. Adam and Eve were presumably immortal, at least they would have been if they hadn’t eaten the fruit. They did eat, so they became subject to death just as the animals already were.


Just from the fact that Mary’s life on earth ended. She was free from Original and personal sin.

The “serpent” was Satan. The fall of Satan and the other demons occurred before that of Adam and Eve, and the temptation by Satan was the occasion for the fall of man. So if by the “world” you mean all Creation including the angels, then yes the real original fall happened before the fall of Adam and Eve. But it was their own fall that brought death and disorder to the human race, and by extension to the rest of Creation in the sense that aspects of creation became physical evils.

Regarding perfection, again depends what you mean. Before Adam and Eve, and indeed during their time in Eden as well, the world was still incomplete, still striving towards that culmination which even in our own time still lies in the future. In this sense the world was not perfect. But before the Fall there was no moral or physical evil in the physical universe. There was moral evil in the fallen angels, but this had not yet spread to man, and nothing save God had the power to physically harm human beings and so physical evil was absent as well. Therefore the physical world really was perfect in the sense of being free from any kind of evil. This all ended with the moral failure of our first parents.

But not necessarily from the physical effects of the Fall. Add the possibility of voluntary spiritual union with the death of Christ and the mysterious manner of her Dormition, which may or may not have been death as we think of it, and there is a lot of room for doubt about your conclusions.

Personally, until I encounter evidence to the contrary I just assume that Mary and Jesus were exempt from the spiritual consequences of Original Sin but not from the physical frailty which the human race became subject to with the Fall. The preternatural physical attributes of our first parents before their fall are something we know nothing about other than their practical effects. It may be that one of their descendants subsequently being exempted from Original Sin would do nothing to restore these physical preternatural gifts.

JRR Tolkien argued in one of his philosophical fictional works from the Middle-Earth Lengendarium, Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, that the natural mode of human passing into the world beyond prior to the Fall would have been by means of “assumption” rather than physical death - as in the Virgin Mary, the reputed “assumption” of Enoch and Elijah. I thought it was an interesting idea but there is of course issues ie mankind could not have had glorified bodies without the coming of Christ and his resurrection (the firstfruits of the new humanity with glorified bodies like unto his own), or could they - given also that God exists beyond time? Would God have glorified their earthly bodies so that they might pass from the temporal world into timeless identity with spiritual bodies of real transformed matter but not subject to death, decay, space, time or any physical constraints and dominated by the spiritual soul rather than the will of the flesh?

Christopher Tollkien stated in his commentary:

The Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth perhaps marks the culmination of my father’s thought on the relation of Elves and Men, in Finrod’s exalted vision of the original design of Eru for Mankind; but his central purpose was to explore full for the first time the nature of ‘the Marring of Men’.

In the tale Andreth, a mortal woman, describes to the High Elf Lord Finrod that Men believe that they themselves were once immortal even as the Elves were. Finrod, however, recognizes that

their ‘immortality’ cannot have been the longevity within Arda of the Elves; otherwise they would have been simply Elves, and their separate introduction later into the Drama by Eru would have no function

At the core of the distinction between Men and Elves is the idea that the separation of fëa and hröa (roughly equivalent to body and soul) is not a natural condition and results not from the original design, but from the “Marring of Arda” by Melkor. The fëar of the Elves was bound to the Time of earth.

The fëar of Men, on the other hand, left time altogether at the time of death. Finrod places a very different interpretation on the “disaster” that befell Men in their Marring then Andreth does. As Tolkien puts it in the Commentary:

He therefore guesses that it is the fear of death that is the result of the disaster. It is feared because it now is combined with severance of hroa and fea. But the fear of Men must have been designed to leave Arda willingly or indeed by desire - maybe after a longer time than the present average human life, but still in a time very short compared with Elvish lives. Then basing his argument on the axiom that severance of hroa and fea is unnatural and contrary to design, he comes (or if you like jumps) to the conclusion that the fea of unfallen Man would have taken with it its hroa into the new mode of existence (free from Time). In other words, that ‘assumption’ was the natural end of each human life, though as far as we know it has been the end of the only ‘unfallen’ member of Mankind.

In this manner Tolkien envisaged pre-Fall man (minus the first sin) being assumed into heaven, eternity or timelessness, at an opportune moment chosen by the will of their rational souls after an extended period of time, perhaps in response to an inspiration or call from God telling them that their purpose had been fufilled and that they could ‘move on’, rather than forcibly expiring by means of physical death and the unnatural (to man) separation of body and soul.

This makes sense on one level since man has a spiritual soul which has its eyes set not on this world but on a world to come, the New Heavens and Earth toward which this current imperfect universe is striving and groaning and journeying.

Even had we not sinned and become subject to death, I do not think that humanity would ever have been “immortal” in the sense of always existing on earth for millenia bound within temporal time. Man loves the earth but looks beyond it, because it is ultimately through man - both matter and spirit joined in perfect harmony - that creation will reach its perfection, through the desire of his rational soul in his material body to transcend time and impermanence with his material form still in tact, thus elevating creation above itself, towards the perfection for which it longs. We are matter that has become aware of itself and has a longing for eternity, for timelessness beyond time. It is that desire to rise up with our material body and transcend this temporal universe which is the perfection of the entire created order - now realized through Christ, who is fully human yet fully divine but still through “man” (God made man).

Am I making sense? I am suggesting that Tolkien, while not a theologian, might have had a genuinely accurate point in surmising that man’s ultimate destiny would not have been immortality for all time within earth/material universe until its ultimate destruction but rather an assumption beyond it with his material body in tact, thus elevating and perfecting creation, driving it towards its ultimate goal which is eternity.

Man thus occupied a kind of intermediate role between the spiritual and material worlds and acted, in God’s plan, as a “bridge” between the two, linking the two and perfecting the material universe - almost “redeeming” it - through his co-operation with God in tending the earth and then “transcending” it through assumption with his body and soul together.

Here’s something else for you to think about, from a footnote to letter #211 (14 October 1958, when Tolkien was supposedly writing the Athrabeth):

It was also the Elvish (and uncorrupted Númenórean) view that a ‘good’ Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled (as did Aragorn). This may have been the nature of unfallen Man; though compulsion would not threaten him: he would desire and ask to be allowed to ‘go on’ to a higher state [with his body and soul together, perhaps? **Vouthon addition to text

]. The Assumption of Mary, the only unfallen person, may be regarded as in some ways a simple regaining of unfallen grace and liberty: she asked to be received, and was, having no further function on Earth. Though, of course, even if unfallen she was not ‘pre-Fall’. Her destiny (in which she had cooperated) was far higher than that of any ‘Man’ would have been, had the Fall not occurred… There is of course no suggestion that Mary did not ‘age’ at the normal rate of her race

Possibly you need to open to the idea that death is not a bad thing. Death means life for all species on earth. It’s part of the natural process God Created. God didn’t just create things, He Created processes. God doesn’t paint plants green, He uses photosynthesis and as a result, leaves of plants are mostly shades of green.

Death for humans is a part of the process of drawing near to God, in Heaven, that process is completed. It also can, theoretically, complete the process of pulling away form God, in Hell, that process would be completed.

… how do we reconcile that with death coming into the world through Adam.

That figurative language applies to “death” also. Before the Fall, Adam lived in a place God had Created for him a state that was not in Time/Space, where earth is. Adam was in the Presence of God every day when God came to him there. But now, for people, for descendants of Adam who now must be born into this state of being, to be with God as Adam once was, we must experience death.

This is literal, but it also represents the “death to self” of being attached more to things than to God. This was Adam’s sin, wasn’t it? Putting his own desire for something not God, ahead of his desire to be one with God in His Divine Will.

Animals and plants change form. That is, the matter of the animal changes into something plants can use to grow, insects and other things can feed on that animals can eat. It’s a huge connected cycle of change that, in fact, stays pretty much the same even if the look of the animals and plants changes.

Human beings, the union of a spiritual soul with a form of matter, are here for one purpose: to show forth the face of God and be transformed into the image of Christ. Thus we die to self and pass on to the Presence of God.

I get ya. But I was proposing an understanding I got from an old book by a priest theologian. He worked his way through the entire bible and where ever death or decease was mentioned he proposed that we need to discern which it was referring to. He used death for the soul and decease for the body in his book.

It was a new way to read many passages and in some, Jesus made the distinction obvious, so did Paul sometimes.

Physical human death may not be the only way to read Gn 1. But Catholics are famous for finding additional insights by reconsidering a way to look at a word. Perhaps it means both, or maybe just the death of the soul. For only sin can effect the status of the soul.

I don’t know of any Church teaching document that we MUST accept that the result of the fall as leading to PHYSICAL death rather than the coming into the world or MORTAL death… death of the soul. Especially in the light that there is no theological objection to evolution.

The Wisdom of Solomon one of the books of the Old Testament in the Catholic and Orthodox canons, tells us that God did not “create death” (for humans that is) but that the “devil’s envy” (of man?) brought it into being. Sirach, another book, calls death God’s “decree” that we must submit to willingly when the time comes.

Scholars often see these two views as opposed ie:

For Sirach, death was part of the natural order, not a divine punishment (33:7-13; 41:3-4; but see 25:24 for a different view). For Josephus it was not death per se that was humankind’s punishment but an early or untimely death. Thus, as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, humankind’s longeivity (not immortality) was curtailed

Curiously Tolkien seems to reflect this view in some writings (such as one quoted above) whereas in the Athrabeth he clearly suggests that man was never meant to “die” but to ascend.

The seeming contradiction can only be resolved if:

  1. The death referred to is purely spiritual


  1. Death is God’s “decree” post-Fall, that man should endure the separation of his soul and body as a consequence of his actions, and die like all other material beings rather than “leave the world” with his body in tact via assumption. Christ of course enables us to “rise again” in a glorified, spiritual body.

Consider these passages:

**Sirach 25:24 & 41:3-4 **

*(NRSV) *

24 From a woman sin had its beginning,
and because of her we all die…

3 Do not fear death’s decree for you;
remember those who went before you and those who will come after.
4 This is the Lord’s decree for all flesh;
why then should you reject the will of the Most High?
Whether life lasts for ten years or a hundred or a thousand,
there are no questions asked in Hades.

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-2:24

because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal.

Life as the Ungodly See It

But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts;
when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass us by.
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
Let none of us fail to share in our revelry;
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’

Error of the Wicked

Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.

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